16 February 2013

Mitigation Project Restoring a Sandhills Lake

Because of impacts on less than two acres of wetlands, a lake expanse of at least 400 acres is being restored within the central Sand Hills of Nebraska.

Two landowners in Grant County and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad have agreed to restore natural hydrology to an altered lake.

The railroad was constructing dual-track alignment in the eastern sandhills and needed to mitigate for impacts, i.e., placing fill upon two sorts of wetland soils, comprising 1.23 acres and .46 acres.

Because of the loss of the wetlands, a review by the Army Corp of Engineers was required, in accordance with Section 404 regulations. The lost habitat needed to be replaced.

Results are now known, according to federal documents provided by the Corps through a Freedom of Information Act request.

BNSF would restore no less than 10.14 acres of wetland habitat, and it would be done at Egan Lake, in southeast Grant County. In May 2012, railroad consultants visited the site, evaluating its suitability for mitigation measures.

Lake features present included pumps to remove water, and which has been "heavily manipulated for the past 40 years by drainage" and was a situation of "highly altered hydrology regime and spread of invasive reed canary grass in the hay meadow, it is not nearly the high quality avian wildlife habitat that it once was prior to drainage," according to details given among the permit documentation. An estimated 1,900 acre feet of water was annually pumped from the lakebed, over a low dune and into the adjacent valley. Removal of the water helped dry meadows to facilitate hay harvest, and fall stock grazing.

"Performance Standards" and "Success Criteria" include, primarily "Completion of physical site improvements (e.g. abandon drainage ditch and remove pumps) and implementation of altered management (e.g. terminate pumping of surface water).

The lake once had a "viable and productive fishery," according to the federal documents.

A conservation easement has also been placed on the property. Documents filed at the Grant County court house, with a mid-December date, indicate an easement was placed upon 389.17 acres, with the the Wellas Cattle Company and Hebbert Charolais.

Financial details of transactions associated with the restoration and easement are not publicly available.

The two landowners will continue their normal ranching activities around the lake. BNSF has also indicated, according to permit documentation, that they would provide "costs related to construction, protection, and potential monitoring."

A "verification letter" indicating compliance with permit conditions must be provided by June 30, 2013 to the Nebraska Regulatory Office, according to a Corps official. The letter would especially indicate that the water pumps and pipes have been removed, and that the drainage ditches have been abandoned.

Egan Lake baseline conditions. Images from mitigation plan provided by the Army Corp of Engineers regulatory office.

Egan Lake mitigation plan.